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Harvard. Interdisciplinary Department of Social Ethics, 1920


The death of the benefactor of Harvard’s Department of Social Ethics, Alfred Tredway White (1846-1921), provided the Harvard Alumni Bulletin an opportunity to review the history of the origins and progress of the interdisciplinary Department of Social Ethics established in 1905 which could trace some of its roots to the sociology course offerings of the Department of Economics. 


Social Ethics.

The article by Professor Cabot which we print in the present issue serves a double purpose. On the one hand it pays a fitting tribute to the memory of one of Harvard’s most generous and self-forgetful benefactors. Mr. Alfred T. White did not give from love of himself, nor even from love of something that was his, such as an alma mater. He gave to a cause in which he believed, and he was concerned only that that cause might be effectively promoted.

But Professor Cabot’s article also throws light on the history and plans of one of the most interesting departments of the University. There is a sense in which this light is needed—for the Department suffers from its ambiguity. It has grown up in close relations with Philosophy, and is at present a member of the same division, and a fellow-tenant of Emerson Hall. Furthermore, Social Ethics sounds like “ethics”, and it is well known that ethics is a branch of philosophy. On the other hand, Social Ethics sounds almost equally like sociology; and that, according to our Harvard plan of organization, is a branch or dependency of Economics. Furthermore, when we come to examine the details of the Social Ethics courses we find that they deal with poverty, immigration, labor, and the like; and these topics appear also in the courses on Economics. There is even a third affinity that confuses the identity of Social Ethics. It is edifying Social Ethics. and improving, and in that respect like Divinity. When Professor Peabody headed the Department of Social Ethics he was at the same time “Plummer Professor of Christian Morals” and preached (as happily he still does) in Appleton Chapel.

What, then, would be left of Social Ethics if its definitions of moral standards were assigned to Philosophy, its descriptions of social facts to Economics, and its devotional spirit to the Divinity School? Nothing—that is, nothing except just that peculiar thing which you get when the three are combined. But the more one thinks of it the more clear one becomes that they are well worth combining.

Consider, for example, the case of poverty. The mere philosopher will prove that it is evil; the mere economist will describe its quantity, its varieties, and its causes; the mere priest will visit the poor and pity them. But suppose you combine the three things in one and the same man. He will have a rational and defensible judgment that poverty is bad; he will be well-informed about it, especially in its broader aspects and underlying conditions; and he will seek to provide a remedy. Now it was Professor Peabody‘s idea and Mr. White’s idea that society will be best served by this thrice-armed man, and that it might well be one of the functions of a great university to arm him and send him forth.

That every college man should acquire something of this reasoned and enlightened zeal to help effectively in the ceaseless struggle of man against nature and against his own infirmities, it would indeed be cynical to doubt. That there should be a special Department of the University in which this three-fold interest is focussed and nurtured is fitting and desirable. But apart from this contribution to undergraduate instruction, the Department of Social Ethics promises to render an important service to the community at large in its development of instruction for professional social workers. Several such courses are announced in the new pamphlet for 1921-22 as offered by the Department itself. But more significant of future development and possibilities is the reference to courses offered in other Departments or schools of the University, which by being systematically grouped would serve as admirable programs of professional social training. Thus, for example, courses in Social Ethics and Education (courses on play, mental hygiene, etc.) make up a varied and adequate program for workers in community centres, settlement houses, or recreation departments. It is evident in this case as doubtless in many others that the rich resources of the University may be made to serve new ends merely through being intelligently correlated with one another and with the public needs of the time.


A. T. White and the Department of Social Ethics

By Richard C. Cabot, ’89, Professor of Clinical Medicine and Professor of Social Ethics

Alfred T. White of Brooklyn, N. Y., has been the benefactor of the Department of Social Ethics at Harvard. His recent death makes it fitting to sum up here and now what he has done for the University.

Other benefactors have given to Harvard larger sums. But seldom has a single department been so generously and so steadily supported by a single individual. The total amount of his gifts has now reached nearly $283,000. In 1903 he gave $50,000 to provide quarters for Social Ethics in the new Philosophy Building then projected. In 1905 he added $100,000 as an endowment of the Department. In 1917 and again in 1918 he gave $50,000 for the same purpose. His will contained a bequest for $50,000, to which should be added smaller donations for temporary needs.

In these gifts there are several unusual qualities. First,—the giver was not a Harvard graduate. He was moved to help social ethics because he believed in it and because he believed in Professor F. G. Peabody, his life-long friend. Moreover, Mr. White believed in social ethics when almost no one else did. Professor Peabody has recently pointed this out: “When Mr. White began to invest in the teaching of social ethics at Harvard University, the subject was hardly recognized as appropriate to a place of learning and was viewed by many critics with apprehension and by some with hostility. Mr. White, however, realized that the problems of social welfare and change must be, as he once said, the central matter of interest to educated .young men for the next fifty years. He proceeded to create what was, I believe, the first systematic and academic department for such instruction that this or any other University has maintained.”

Moreover, he was a remarkably persistent giver. “It was a dramatic opportunity,” says Professor Peabody, “to endow a department of social ethics, but it was a much severer test of conviction to be the anonymous source of a continuous stream of benefactions, prizes, publications, and equipment for nearly twenty years and to secure their continuance after his death.”

I do not wish to prescribe a precise application for every part of the income which will arise from this endowment, but I shall be glad to have it applied toward the provision and maintenance of material, such as books, photographs, drawings, models, etc., toward a special library and a social museum; toward the payment of further instructors, assistants, and curators; to the encouragement through prizes, fellowships, and other rewards, of special researches or publications; or for lectures or new forms of instruction. My interest in developing these studies at Harvard University is prompted largely by my observation of the courses originated and directed by Professor Peabody, and it is my desire that, while he continues to administer this instruction, the income from this endowment shall be expended, with the concurrence of the Corporation, under his direction and in fulfillment of the purposes which he has in mind. I would like to have the endowment known as “The Francis Greenwood Peabody Endowment” for the encouragement of the studies of the Ethics of the Social Questions.

Doubtless the adventurous and pioneering quality of Mr. White’s gifts was enhanced by the fact that he was helping another pioneer. For Professor Peabody’s courses anticipated by many years the earliest teaching of social work in this country. The Boston School for Social Workers, one of the earliest in the country, was not founded until 1904—or twenty-two years after the time when Professor Peabody began to give similar instruction at Harvard.

It was in the autumn of 1883 that there first appeared as Philosophy II (later Philosophy 5) a course by Professor Francis G. Peabody described as: “Ethical Theories and Moral Reforms. Studies of the practical problems of temperance, charity, divorce, the Indians, labor, prison discipline, etc.” —a half-course. This course, to which there was added in 1895 a Seminary in Sociology (200), was given by Professor Peabody both in the Divinity School and in the Philosophical Department up to 1905, a period of twenty-two years. In 1904, Dr. Jeffrey R. Brackett, of the newly established Boston School for Social Workers, began to give also (as Philosophy 19) a course on “The Practical Problems of Charity, Public Aid and Correction”.

These courses, which at their inception had no parallels in any other American college, attracted the interest of Mr. White, long an intimate and valued friend of Professor Peabody. The result is best stated in his own words:

For fifty years my approach to any understanding of the involved social and industrial problems of the day has been from the point of view and practical experience of a layman. It was a recognition of a dire need which led me more than forty years ago to endeavor to study housing problems, but I was forced to cross the Atlantic to obtain any guidance. Incidentally, I became interested in industrial problems, in problems of intemperance, etc. . . . . When I found some thirty years since that Professor Peabody was endeavoring to instruct classes at Harvard along the very lines on which I had been endeavoring to work or find guidance, it seemed to me that an opportunity was presented of which it was my duty to make the most, and my contribution to the erection of Emerson Hall and the endowment of the Department of Social Ethics resulted.

This result was attained in 1905, when the Department of Social Ethics first appears in the University Catalogue, following that of Philosophy, and began to occupy its present quarters on the second floor of Emerson Hall, where space was provided (according to the plan of Professor Peabody and Mr. White) for a museum of social ethics and for a social ethics library, as well as for recitation rooms and small departmental study-rooms. Mr. White hoped that in this new building the Department might extend its usefulness and its influence:

I wish that all the teaching in the Department of Social Ethics might be of the highest possible quality, but I wish also that the Department might be made to reach the largest possible number of undergraduates. During fifty years I have seen the difficulty of making sane progress which is due largely on the one side to satisfied ignorance and on the other to untrained theorists. Instruction which Harvard has given and is giving in its Department of Social Ethics in the way of promoting careful and sane consideration of social and industrial problems seems to me really invaluable. Not infrequently I have happened to hear testimonies to its great usefulness.

It now seems clear to me that instruction in these subjects of study will have an unprecedented opportunity of usefulness in connection with the consideration of the grave problems of reconstruction which are opening before this country.

At the close of the Civil War I rejoiced to be coming of age at a time when similar though lesser problems confronted us, and now I am almost envious of those who are coming to manhood at this time and of those who have the opportunity to instruct them.

In accordance with these hopes, the Department added to its staff in 1908 Doctors Ford, Foerster, and McConnell, the first two of whom, after Professor Peabody’s retirement in 1913, have carried on the courses up to the present academic year.

The group of subjects which Professor Peabody could treat in the Department’s early years under the compass of a single course (at first a half-course) have since then been developed and separated into two separate full courses and nine half-courses. Thus Dr. Rogers (1905) and later Dr. McConnell gave separate half-courses in “Criminology and Penology”. The “European Phases of Social Effort” needed special treatment in a half-course by Dr. Foerster, begun in 1909. “Rural Social Development” (Dr. Ford) was added next year, “Housing Problems” (Dr. Ford) in 1912 and a new course, “Immigration and Race Problems”, by Dr. Foerster appears in the same year. In 1913 the “Alcohol Problem” becomes under Assistant Professor Ford a topic deserving separate treatment, and Mr. Carstens comes in from his Boston work in the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to give a course in “Child Helping Agencies”.

Hitherto all the ethical problems involved in the “Labor Question” had been treated as part of the general introductory course with which Professor Peabody began. In 1915 another offshoot appears as Social Ethics 6,—“Unemployment and other interruptions of income with special reference to social insurance” (Professor Foerster), also a seminary in “labor legislation, standards of living and earning”. In 1916 “Poor Relief” becomes a separate half-course under Assistant Professor Ford, and Assistant Professor Foerster adds a half-course in “Recent Theories of Social Reform”.

In 1920 the courses fitted to train professional social workers were separated from the rest as definitely professional courses, carried on by Professor Ford. An introductory course (A) and another advanced course (16) have also been added.

Mr. White assigned a very central position to the study of social ethics. He believed, as I do, that social ethics differs from most other subjects in being one that only an automaton or a maniac can wholly neglect. To direct one’s affairs at all, one must make some estimate of a better and a worse, which estimate is ethical and almost invariably social. One can neglect music and mathematics, chemistry and Latin, history and economics, if one is so foolish. But even neglect and foolishness have an ethical tinge in all but the most hare-brained people.

In one sense, then, social ethics is a subject that everyone deals with, well or ill. In this sense, like language, it is everybody’s specialty. But the question remains: Can social ethics be taught? I do not know whether Mr. White ever asked himself this question. I admit that it seems to me difficult to answer it with a confident affirmative. Each of us must, to a large extent, teach himself and find his own way in ethics. But this is almost as true of every other important subject. Only the mechanical and mnemonic elements of music, history, or mathematics can be “taught”. The spirit of these studies and of all studies has to be found by each for himself. This belief is, I suppose, at the root of President Lowell’s advocacy of the tutorial system. How to find out for oneself the interest of any study is perhaps possible under tutorial guidance for many who never could discover it in the class room. At any rate our chance of usefulness to the student will be as good as anyone’s when our methods of teaching are made more individual and personal through good tutors. Then the tremendous appeal of social ethics to the spirit of our time can be presented with its full force.


Source: Harvard Alumni Bulletin, Vol. 23, No. 30 (May 5, 1921) pp. 688-689, pp. 700-702.

Image: Robert Franz Foerster, Assistant Professor of Social Ethics. In Harvard Class Album 1920.

Irwin Collier

Posted by: Irwin Collier

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